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Elon residents, council still (mostly) not interested in opening Aspen Ave. to adjacent Gibsonville development

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Elon’s municipal leaders have decided to bring some “closure” – in more ways than one – to a long-running debate over a roadway that a residential developer proposes to use as an entrance into a new, adjacent subdivision in Gibsonville.

During a three-hour meeting on Monday, Elon’s town council instructed the town’s staff to prepare some competing proposals to ban motor vehicles from this rough-hewn stretch of Aspen Avenue rather than allow it to serve as an entryway into Gibsonville’s Owen Park subdivision. The council nevertheless called for provisions that would allow pedestrians and cyclists to make use of this route even when the way has been barred to cars, trucks, and the like.

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Town manager Richard Roedner strains to seat the capacity crowd that packed Elon’s town hall for Monday’s debate over the proposed extension of Aspen Avenue across the town limits into a Gibsonville subdivision that is now under construction.

This consensus on the part of the council follows several years of back and forth over this short section of right of way, which juts out from Aspen Avenue – a dead end street within Elon’s Ashley Woods subdivision.

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This so-called street “stub,” which breaks off at the municipal boundary, had originally been platted decades ago to accommodate a potential connection to some future roadway in Gibsonville. This hypothetical juncture didn’t become a bona fide possibility until 2019 when the Wake County developer Matt Kirkpatrick laid the foundation for a 130-home subdivision on Gibsonville’s side of the border with Elon.

Gibsonville’s board of aldermen has since given the all-clear to Owen Park, as Kirkpatrick has christened his project in honor of a previous landowner. Yet, a number of missteps on the developer’s part have turned his proposed subdivision into a lightning rod for residents on both sides of the municipal divide.

“I think the consensus is that everybody wants some kind of closure, after dealing with this for two-plus years.”

– Elon mayor Emily Sharpe

Kirkpatrick’s plans for Aspen Avenue have proven particularly contentious with homeowners in Ashley Woods, who’ve converged on Elon’s town council whenever there’ve been murmurs about the developer’s proposed road connection.

This off-and-on battle over Aspen Avenue finally came to a head Monday when the council decided that the time had arrived to put this controversy to bed. The council’s prevailing mood was perhaps best summed up by mayor Emily Sharpe when she formally instructed the town’s staff to rough out some options for a permanent road closure about two hours into that evening’s proceedings.

“I think the consensus is that everybody wants some kind of closure,” she said at the time, “after dealing with this for two-plus years.”

 

A long and winding road

Although the site of Owen Park is located entirely within Gibsonville’s territorial limits, Kirkpatrick’s desire for multiple points of access into the subdivision ultimately sent him in the direction of Elon’s municipal leaders.

Since at least 2021, members of Elon’s municipal staff have been aware of the developer’s intention to forge a connection with Aspen Avenue in order to provide Owen Park with one of the handful of entry points he has in the offing.

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In the opening months of 2022, the town’s administrators granted Kirkpatrick a driveway permit for the existing “stub” of right-of-way that lies due west of Aspen Avenue’s dead end. It wasn’t long, however, before the town revoked the permit when it emerged that logging trucks had been using the  street stub to access Owen Park’s future site.

Later that year, Elon’s town decreed the stub’s temporary closure to prevent further illegal intrusions, and the town eventually raised an impromptu barricade that has since barred the way into Owen Park from Aspen Avenue in Elon.

In the fall of 2023, a hue and cry arose from neighboring residents after Kirkpatrick let it slip that he would eventually ask Elon to lift the temporary road closure. This neighborhood uprising prompted the town’s administrators to meet with the developer to iron out the terms under which this could occur.

During this confab, Elon’s mayor Emily Sharpe reportedly exhorted Kirkpatrick to hold a neighborhood meeting with the residents of Ashley Woods. Kirkpatrick returned to the council in April to formally request a new permit – although without having convened the requested meeting. As a result, the council resolved to put off the matter indefinitely until the mayor’s demand had been met.

 

Seeking a connection

Kirkpatrick ultimately came back before the council on Monday – having, this time, complied with the mayor’s directive for a neighborhood meeting. Also on hand were dozens of neighboring residents, who filled every available seat in the council’s meeting chambers and spilled out into the building’s atrium, where the stood, cheek to jowl, throughout the council’s two-hour debate.

As a prelude to Monday’s discussion, Elon’s town manager Richard Roedner presented the council with a half dozen options to resolve the ongoing squabble over Aspen Avenue. These prospective measures included lifting the temporary road closure in order to reopen the street stub to traffic; reopening the street stub with a developer-proposed restriction on construction traffic; or reopening it and immediately closing it back up until a certain percentage of Owen Park has been completed so as to place an even stronger limit on construction vehicles.

Roedner acknowledged that the council could choose to leave the temporary road closure in place. He even held out the prospect of a more permanent road closure – although this choice didn’t appear among the options he had included in a memo that accompanied the council’s meeting agenda.

“Connectivity is very important to us planners – partly due to emergency response time. There is also the safety aspect, as it can create a safe system for vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists. It reduces congestion on arterial streets; it improves vehicular distribution across the roadway system in general; it promotes energy conservation due to more direct travel routes and faster travel times; it increases utility efficiency by providing better access for road maintenance and can possibly provide a more efficient trash collection route. Lastly, it encourages walking and biking.”

– Elon town planner Lori Oakley

Lori Oakley, Elon’s planning director, ultimately tried to steer the council away from a permanent road closure because it would hamper the town’s putative goal for “connectivity” between different developments.

“Connectivity is very important to us planners – partly due to emergency response time,” Oakley went on to declare. “There is also the safety aspect, as it can create a safe system for vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists. It reduces congestion on arterial streets; it improves vehicular distribution across the roadway system in general; it promotes energy conservation due to more direct travel routes and faster travel times; it increases utility efficiency by providing better access for road maintenance and can possibly provide a more efficient trash collection route. Lastly, it encourages walking and biking.”

Oakley’s assertions didn’t draw any objections from Kirkpatrick, who concurred that “connectivity makes for better neighborhoods.” The developer added that, once Owen Park is complete, he would actually encourage pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers to use the subdivision’s sidewalks and streets to get from Elon to destinations in Gibsonville.

“Our vision is to connect this location all the way to downtown Gibsonville. We want to have a pedestrian connection that gets people all the way to downtown.”

– owen park Developer Matt Kirkpatrick

“Our vision is to connect this location all the way to downtown Gibsonville,” he added. “We want to have a pedestrian connection that gets people all the way to downtown.”

 

To the barricade…

Kirkpatrick was nevertheless keen to include motor vehicles among the forms of propulsion that would benefit from his proposed connection to Aspen Avenue. His assertions on this score were echoed by his attorney Amanda Hodierne, who observed that this sort of passage is precisely why the “stub” at the end of Aspen Avenue “exists at all.”

 

“Whether you temporarily close it or use your authority over traffic control is an issue of semantics. I’m not seeing a very strong legal argument here that this road closure would deprive anyone of ingress or egress . . .and if you choose to maintain the status quo [of a temporary closure], I am comfortable with you doing that under your previous action.”

– Elon town attorney Bob Hagemann

The council, however, was given the green light to take a much different course by its own attorney Bob Hagemann. A retired legal counsel for the city of Charlotte, Hagemann insisted that there’s no legal obstacle to prevent Elon’s municipal leaders from permanently closing the street stub or from maintaining their temporary blockade.

“Whether you temporarily close it or use your authority over traffic control is an issue of semantics,” he said. “I’m not seeing a very strong legal argument here that this road closure would deprive anyone of ingress or egress…and if you choose to maintain the status quo [of a temporary closure], I am comfortable with you doing that under your previous action.”

Hagemann’s confident assertion of the town’s legal rights seemed to take some of the wind out of the sails of the developer’s attorney. In fact, Hodierne merely pressed the council to take a firm stand one way or the other rather than leave Kirkpatrick in his current administrative limbo.

“My client needs a reasonable expectation,” she added. “A temporary closure keeps idling in this stance where we don’t know the criteria or what the end goals are…I don’t think the end game for any of us is to have the barricade there for 10 years.”

 

Open for comments

Hodierne went on to contend that the traffic from Kirkpatrick’s development would be distributed among several other outlets – and would ultimately improve the flow of vehicles along Elon’s entire border with Gibsonville.

This observation was later reiterated by a number of neighboring residents, who bucked their compatriots to speak up in defense of the developer’s plans.

Although opposition to Kirkpatrick’s proposal seemed to pervade the majority of the five dozen or so audience members who were on hand for Monday’s proceedings, a number of these spectators were willing to break ranks when the council opened the floor to remarks from the public.

In the end, the council heard statements in support of the developer from four of the 12 residents who availed themselves of this opportunity to weigh in on Aspen Avenue’s ultimate fate.

A particularly passionate plea for Kirkpatrick came from Patty Roberts Temples, a member of Gibsonville’s planning board whose home along Brookview Drive is not far from the Ashley Woods subdivision.

Gibsonville planning board member Patty Roberts Temples

Temples went so far as to apologize for the savage attacks that the developer received from other residents during some of the public hearings in Gibsonville.

“Since this [stub out road on previous plats] was decided many years ago, what’s with the objection [to opening the road]?”

– Ashley Woods Homeowners Association President Lois Dziedzic

Also in Kirkpatrick’s camp was Lois Dziedzic, the current president of the Ashley Woods Homeowners Association. Dziedzic argued that, given its small size, Aspen Avenue is unlikely to attract as much traffic as Owen Park’s other proposed outlets. She also pointed out that the street stub at the end of Aspen Avenue has appeared on real estate plats for decades.

“Since this was decided many years ago,” she added, “what’s with the objection?”

“What I would like to request everyone to consider is that the whole neighborhood is affected by this. I think we need to consider as a community what is the safest solution for our entire community.”

– Ashley Woods resident Matt Clancey

Meanwhile, Todd Anthony of White Poplar Court and his neighbor Matt Clancey insisted that the dispersal of traffic among more entrances will ultimately be better for the entire community.

“What I would like to request everyone to consider is that the whole neighborhood is affected by this,” Clancey told the audience on this particular point. “I think we need to consider as a community what is the safest solution for our entire community.”

Yet, the professions of Kirkpatrick’s apologists were ultimately drowned out by the many other residents who opposed the developer’s plans.

These critics included some who objected to a road connection while construction is underway as well as others who were dead set against this juncture under any circumstances. Many of Kirkpatrick’s detractors were baffled that officials in Elon would even consider letting a development in Gibsonville open up onto the back end of an established subdivision in their own municipality.

“Ashley Woods has experienced an explosion of growth around our once secluded neighborhood. Ashley Woods deserves to be more than a pass through for this developer’s homes. . . Why should an established neighborhood conform to the wants of a new development? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?”

– Ashley Woods resident Judy Peacock

“Ashley Woods has experienced an explosion of growth around our once secluded neighborhood,” declared Judy Peacock of Longbrook Drive. “Ashley Woods deserves to be more than a pass through for this developer’s homes…Why should an established neighborhood conform to the wants of a new development? Shouldn’t it be the other way

“Yes, interconnectivity can be an advantage in some places. But not in this location. . . How are we going to help Elon by opening up Aspen?”

– Ashley Woods resident Tom Blume

“Yes, interconnectivity can be an advantage in some places. But not in this location,” added Tom Blume of Brookview Drive. “How are we going to help Elon by opening up Aspen?”

Other speakers took Kirkpatrick to task for his fateful decision to direct logging trucks along Aspen Avenue until the town put a halt to this practice. Paul Parsons of Arbor Drive recalled that this barrage of heavy equipment felt like developer was “terrorizing the community.” In the meantime, Glenn Anderson, who lives along the Avenue of Trees, chastised Kirkpatrick for the selective information that he said was presented to residents who attended the aforementioned neighborhood meeting in May.

“I don’t think we’re getting the full truth here [from the developer].”

– Ashley Woods resident Glenn Anderson

“Was it an omission of convenience?” Anderson added. “I don’t think we’re getting the full truth here.”

 

Case Closed

As for Elon’s municipal leaders, an equally harsh view of Kirkpatrick’s plans came from council member Stephanie Bourland. Bourland, who is herself a resident of the Ashley Woods subdivision, generally agreed with the majority of her neighbors on the likely results of the developer’s request.

“I don’t see any benefit to the town of Elon in opening this road. It’s going to increase speeds on that road, and it’s going to increase the number of cars.”

– Elon town council member, and Ashley Woods resident, Stephanie Bourland

“I don’t see any benefit to the town of Elon in opening this road,” she professed during the council’s discussion. “It’s going to increase speeds on that road, and it’s going to increase the number of cars.”

Sharpe, for her part, objected to the eyesore that she feels the town’s temporary barricade has created along the border with Gibsonville.

“I see that sign and I think ‘that is not Elon,’” she added.

Meanwhile, councilman Quinn Ray was hesitant to support a permanent road closure even though he concurred with Sharpe’s thoughts on the barricade’s lack of aesthetic appeal.

“I’m fine with a temporary [closure],” Quinn went on to concede. “If we keep it as is, with some beautification, it’s going to make some nice walking paths.”

In the end, the accommodation of bicycles and foot traffic was one clear point of agreement to emerge from the council’s discussion.

Councilman Michael Woods was the first to broach the idea that Aspen Avenue should be closed to vehicular traffic while maintaining a connection for pedestrians and cyclists. This idea was later embraced by councilman Randy Orwig.

“I like the way of pedestrian connectivity,” Orwig conceded. “But I don’t know if I want it being another roadway…We need to move to some kind of closure.”

The idea of limited access for bikes and pedestrians also won favor with Elon’s mayor pro tem Monti Allison, who nevertheless shared Ray’s aversion to the prospect of a “permanent” road closure.

“I don’t think that closing the road permanently is the solution,” Allison said. “We want to create connectivity between the two neighborhoods…and I would like us to come to some kind of an agreement to have a greenway of sorts.”

Sensing a consensus emerging among the council’s voting members, Sharpe instructed Elon’s staff to draft some competing proposals that would prevent vehicles from using the street stub but allow the continued passage of pedestrians and bicycles.

The mayor’s move was momentarily derailed by Bourland who wanted a formal vote of the council to issue these instructions to staff. What followed was an Abbott and Costello routine involving competing motions and overlapping points of order before Bourland backed down and allowed Sharpe to deliver the instructions on the council’s behalf.

Sharpe went on to assert that she expects the council to vote on one of the staff’s drafts when they’re presented at either the council’s only meeting next month, which will take place on Tuesday, July 16, or at its regularly-scheduled proceedings on Tuesday, August 13.

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